Overly busy page with extraneous images can draw the children’s attention away from the text


Reading is the gateway for learning, but one-third of elementary school students in the United States do not read at grade level.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are exploring how the design of reading materials affects literacy development.

They find that an overly busy page with extraneous images can draw the reader’s attention away from the text, resulting in lower understanding of content.

The results of the study are available in the September issue of the journal npj Science of Learning.

“Learning to read is hard work for many kids,” said Anna Fisher, associate professor of psychology and senior author on the paper.

The typical design of books for beginning readers often include engaging and colorful illustrations to help define the characters and setting of the story, offer context for the text and motivate young readers.

Fisher and Cassondra Eng, a doctoral candidate in CMU’s Department of Psychology and first author on the paper, hypothesized that the extraneous images may draw the reader’s eyes away from the text and disrupt the focus necessary to understand the story.

The researchers sought to understand how to support young readers and optimize their experience as they become more fluent readers.

In the study, 60 first- and second-grade students from the greater Pittsburgh area were asked to read from a commercially available book designed for reading practice in this age group.

Half of the book consisted of the published design and the other half was streamlined, having removed the extraneous images. Each child read from the same book.

The team used a portable eye-tracker to monitor the number of times the child’s gaze shifted away from the text to images on the page.

Busy pictures hinder reading ability in children
Example of page in the book young children read from. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University
Busy pictures hinder reading ability in children
Level of extraneous images on the storybook page. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

To develop the streamlined version of the book, the researchers had a group of adults identify relevant images to the text. To differentiate, extraneous images were defined as entertaining, but nonessential pictures to understand the story.

For the streamlined version, the researchers kept the images that 90% of the adult participants agreed were relevant illustrations. All other illustrations were removed.

While the time each child spent on a page was similar, the researchers found that nearly all children reading the streamlined version had lower gaze shifts away from text and higher reading comprehension scores compared to the text in the commercially designed version of the book.

In particular, children who are more prone to look away from text benefited the most from the streamlined version of the book.

“During these primary school years, children are in a transition period in which they are increasingly expected to read independently, but even more so in the wake of stay-at-home orders as children are using technology with less in-person guidance from teachers,” said Eng.

“This is exciting because we can design materials grounded in learning theories that can be most helpful to children and enrich their experiences with technology.”

Fisher notes one limitation to this study was that her team only evaluated reading using a single book.

According to Fisher, these findings highlight ways to improve the design of educational materials, especially for beginning readers.

By simply limiting extraneous illustrations, children can have an easier time focusing and better reading comprehension as a result.

“This is not a silver bullet and will not solve all challenges in learning to read,” said Fisher. “But if we can take steps to make practicing reading a little bit easier and reduce some of the barriers, we [can help children] engage with the printed material and derive enjoyment from this activity.”

Provided by Carnegie Mellon University 

A glance at the early childhood sections of any library or bookstore reveals that pictures books, or books in which pictures complement or dominate the text (Jalongo, 2004), are quite common in young children’s literature.

Why are illustrations so ubiquitous in story books for young children?

It is widely believed that story illustrations help capture children’s attention to stories and facilitate their understanding and retention of what is being read to them. This conclusion is bolstered by studies of preschool children’s visual attention during storybook reading, which shows that they are overwhelmingly focused on the illustrations rather than the print (e.g., Evans and Saint-Aubin, 2005; Justice et al., 2008).

Although pictures may capture children’s attention, research from our laboratory and others suggests that they may not actually enhance very young children’s comprehension and recall of the stories they accompany, at least in controlled story presentation contexts (e.g., Greenhoot and Semb, 2008).

It remains to be seen, however, whether illustrations have different effects on children’s processing of stories when they are read in a more naturalistic and interactive story-reading context.

Therefore, we designed this experiment to examine the effects of story illustrations on parent-child story reading and preschool children’s story recall.

Because our work is grounded in the literature on memory and narrative development, we focused on children’s abilities to recall the major events that took place in the story, rather than other dimensions such as vocabulary or a moral.

It is well-established that, among school-aged children and adults, memory for prose that is presented in written or auditory form is enhanced by illustrations (Levin and Lesgold, 1978; Brookshire et al., 2002; Carney and Levin, 2002). There are a number of explanations for this picture-enhancement effect.

Exposure to information both verbally and pictorially may result in the construction of memory representations in both modalities that then provide redundant retrieval routes (Paivio, 1986, 1970).

Pictures may also enhance attention and comprehension or organization of material, or provide cues about important information in the text to keep activated, all which may promote the formation of stronger, more elaborated and more organized memory traces (Gernsbacher, 1990; Levin and Mayer, 1993).

Although picture-facilitation effects are well-established in the literature on school-aged children and adults, the developmental literature suggests that story illustrations might not yield the same benefits for very young children as have been observed for older children (e.g., Guttman et al., 1977; Furnham et al., 2002; Pike et al., 2010).

A few studies have documented picture-enhancement effects in preschoolers but only for very specific auditory information (e.g., the object of a sentence) that is also explicitly depicted in the pictures (Pressley et al., 1982; Digdon et al., 1985). This line of work has also shown that younger children require greater redundancy between the pictures and auditory information to show mnemonic benefits than do older children (Guttman et al., 1977; Furnham et al., 2002).

Research from our own laboratory on children’s memories for more complex story narratives found that illustrations failed to enhance the memories of young preschoolers when they accompanied prerecorded stories (Greenhoot and Semb, 2008).

In that study, children who were between 46 and 63 months of age were exposed to a story about a fictional animal character in one of four story-presentation formats: the verbal story narrative with illustrations, the narrative alone, the narrative with uninformative illustrations, or the illustrations alone.

To ensure that the verbal presentation was identical across groups, the story narrative was pre-recorded and a tone cued children to turn the page. Although children in all verbal groups accurately recalled more story events than those in the picture-only group, for children younger than 4.5 years, there were no differences in recall performance between the three verbal groups.

With increasing age, children exposed to the illustrated story narrative increasingly outperformed those in the other verbal groups, such that children older than 4.5 years did benefit from the informative illustrations. These benefits, moreover, were limited to information presented both in the text and the pictures.

The overall pattern of results suggested that the illustrations did not simply improve motivation and attention to the listening task. Rather, the children must have attended to the content of the pictures because it determined whether they were effective in facilitating recall.

One explanation for the younger children’s failure to benefit from story illustrations is that they may not understand the relevance of illustrations and therefore fail to encode the illustrations or use them as retrieval cues (e.g., Pressley and MacFadyen, 1983).

Indeed, in the handful of studies that observed picture facilitation effects for preschoolers’ recall of simple stimuli, the children were warned of the memory test and explicitly prompted to attend to the pictures (Pressley et al., 1982; Digdon et al., 1985). Another possibility is that very young children lack the processing capacity necessary to attend to and encode both the story and the pictures and to connect them in memory (Dempster, 1981; Cowan et al., 2002).

Consistent with this argument, Mayer and Moreno (1998) showed that adults’ ability to combine auditory and visual details in memory depends on the availability of working memory resources.

Finally, the literature on symbolic development would suggest that young children struggle to maintain and connect the visual and verbal representations of the story in memory (e.g., Flavell et al., 1986; DeLoache, 2000).

In any case, it seems possible that illustrations could yield benefits in a story reading context in which an adult supports or “scaffolds” children’s attention to and understanding of the illustrations.

When a parent or other adult reads a story to a child, both the child and the reader may ask questions and make comments about the pictures and text.

Research on adult-child story reading suggests that these types of story-reading behaviors enhance children’s processing of stories. For example, adult references to print, both verbal and non-verbal, increase preschoolers’ references to print (e.g., Justice et al., 2002, 2008).

Moreover, parents’ attempts to actively engage young children during story reading (Kang et al., 2009), and children’s spontaneous utterances to parents (Kim et al., 2011), predict better child story retelling.

These types of behaviors during parent-child story-reading also predict children’s long-term literacy outcomes, including vocabulary and story comprehension skills (e.g., Whitehurst et al., 1988; Haden et al., 1996; Reese and Cox, 1999; Hood et al., 2008).

Although no studies have examined the specific role of illustrations in influencing parent-child story reading interactions, it seems quite possible that illustrations might elicit more discussion than narrative alone, which in turn might enhance children’s comprehension and recall of the story.

Thus, although illustrations alone might not enhance young children’s memories for stories in a controlled story presentation context, illustrations could yield benefits in an interactive story-reading context.

Therefore, we designed this study to examine the specific role of illustrations in influencing parent-child storybook reading behavior and eliciting parent and the effects on 3.5 to 4.5-year-old children’s story comprehension and recall.

Children in this age range did not benefit from illustrations when they accompanied audio-recorded stories in Greenhoot and Semb (2008).

In the current study we tested whether they would benefit when the same story narratives and pictures were used in an interactive story-reading context. We asked parents to read either an illustrated or non-illustrated story to their children, and later asked the children to retell the story to an experimenter.

We analyzed the qualities of the story reading interactions in these two conditions and examined the relations to children’s story recall.

The specific aims were to

(a) assess the influence of story illustrations on parent and child story-reading behavior,

(b) examine the effects of illustrations on young preschoolers story recall in this interactive story-reading context, and

(c) to determine how group and individual differences in parent-child story-reading behavior relate to preschoolers’ recall of illustrated and non-illustrated stories.

Illustrations are commonplace in storybooks for young children, yet the scant research on their influence on children’s story retelling has suggested that young preschool children actually learn very little from story illustrations when they are presented in a non-interactive story-reading context (e.g., Greenhoot and Semb, 2008).

The results of this investigation suggest that illustrations do enhance young preschoolers’ story recall when they are presented in an interactive story reading context.

Thus, young preschoolers may be unable to glean both visual and auditory information from a story and/or integrate the information in a context that requires them to do this alone, but our current findings are consistent with the view that parents help support or “scaffold” such processes in an interactive story reading context.

Parents may use the pictures to keep children engaged in the reading activity, help children see the relevance of the illustrations for comprehending the story, and/or facilitate children’s ability to attend to the pictures and verbal information and integrate them in memory.

These findings fit well with sociocultural models of development, which highlight the role of adult-child interaction in guiding and supporting children’s participation in activities and socializing their skill development (Vygotsky, 1978; Rogoff, 1990; Nelson and Fivush, 2004).

It should be noted, however that the parent-supported enhancements observed in this study were not especially robust or long-lasting; pictures facilitated children’s immediate recall of the stories but significant benefits were not maintained after a 1-week delay.

Our analyses of the story reading interactions reveals some of the things parents might do to support children’s processing of the illustrations. These analyses showed that the presence of illustrations influenced both parent and child behaviors during story reading.

Both parents and children made more references to the book in the Illustrated condition, and this increase in book references was not limited to the illustrations themselves. Parents and children also made more references to the text when pictures were present than when they were not. Nonetheless, the predictive models showed that these references to the book were not directly related to children’s recall of the story events.

The global measures of story reading quality also indicated that the illustrations prompted a more interactive and engaged style of story reading. Children in the Illustrated condition were less likely to be rated as distracted than those in the Non-Illustrated condition.

Indeed, of the 7 children who were rated as distracted, 6 were in the Non-Illustrated condition and 4, all of whom were in the Non-Illustrated condition, had parents who had made numerous engagement attempts.

Thus, these parent efforts at engagement may have failed without the support of pictures.

The predictive models showed that children who more frequently displayed inattentiveness, and those who were judged to be completely distracted during the story presentation, had poorer recall performance at the immediate interview.

Moreover, the predictive value of group was somewhat reduced when these attention variables were included in the models. These patterns suggest that the parents may have used the illustrations to hold children’s attention to the story reading activity, leading to improved recall of the story events, at least in the short-term.

Interestingly, parent emotional expressiveness was actually higher in the Non-Illustrated condition than the Illustrated condition, suggesting that parents may have tried to compensate for the absence of illustrations by increasing their emotional expressiveness as they read.

Perhaps they were using this elevated emotional expressiveness to keep children engaged with the story reading activity. Thus, our small sample of well-educated mothers appears to be quite sensitive to the story reading context. The fact that parent emotion expressiveness also was related to fewer recall errors at both interviews and higher overall recall at the 1-week interview recall suggests that compensation attempts for the absence of pictures could have reduced the robustness of the differences between the Illustrated and Non-Illustrated conditions.

Of course, within-person comparisons of maternal story reading with illustrated and non-illustrated stories would provide a more definitive evaluation of this claim. It also remains to be seen whether this pattern would generalize to a more diverse sample, as pre-emergent reading behaviors have been shown to vary according to socioeconomic status (Bus et al., 1995).

It would also be important to explore whether these illustration effects on parent expressiveness would generalize to different types of stories (e.g., stories that are either more or less interesting than those used here).

References to the events described in the story were the one category of story-reading measures that did not differ across the Illustrated and Non-Illustrated groups. However, consistent with the literature on parent-child story-reading interactions (e.g., Kang et al., 2009; Kim et al., 2011), individual differences in this dimension of story reading interactions were linked to differences in children’s recall at the initial interview.

In particular, children whose mothers offered more comments and questions about the events described in the stories, such as inferences or predictions about what will happen, learned more from the stories than other children. Therefore, although this feature of the interactions did not seem to account for the illustration effects, it seemed to support children’s recall of the events in the story regardless of the presentation format.

Overall, the pattern of results in this study suggests that the illustrations prompted more interactive story reading and more behaviors known to predict improved literacy outcomes for children (e.g., Whitehurst et al., 1988; Haden et al., 1996; Reese and Cox, 1999; Hood et al., 2008).

Furthermore, the illustrations did produce recall enhancements and parent and child story-reading behaviors predicted children’s story recall. Nonetheless, our story reading measures only partially accounted for the effects of the illustrations on children’s story recall.

This pattern suggests that our story reading measures simply may not have captured the actual mediating variables. For instance, it seems likely that it is simply the joint attention established between parent and child in this context supports children’s processing of the illustrations. It is also quite possible that the dimensions of story-reading that we measured support dimensions of children’s processing and recall of the stories that we did not capture in this study.

The current study was limited to mother-child story storybook reading, and there is some evidence that parent-child book-reading may differ for mothers and fathers (Anderson et al., 2004). For instance, Anderson et al. (2004) found that fathers asked for more clarification and made more confirmations when reading informational books to their 4 year-olds than mothers.

Although previous research has not found differences in how fathers and mothers read narrative stories to children, future research should explore whether the effects of illustrations observed in mothers in this study extend to fathers’ reading styles.

Another future consideration in understanding illustration effects on book reading with young children is the genre of book, as some work has documented differences in book reading interactions depending on genre of book (Mason et al., 1989; Price et al., 2009). Price et al. (2009) found substantial differences in parents’ book reading, for storybooks verses informational, non-fiction books.

For instance, parents spent more time reading and commenting on the informational books than the storybooks. Moreover, parents provided more feedback to the child, commented more about the character/animal, and made more elaborations and inferences during the informational book reading.

Interestingly, the storybooks in their study averaged eight more illustrations than the informational books.

Similar interactional patterns have been observed with teacher book sharing (Mason et al., 1989). Parents’ and teachers’ heightened commenting and elaborating on informational books could potentially provide even greater scaffolding for illustration processing, leading to heightened picture facilitation effects.

These findings have a number of implications for understanding the optimal ways of presenting stories to young children, and address issues that are particularly important in an age of increasing reliance on non-human sources of information for children.

First, this study highlights the fact that a story presentation context that allows for social exchange may be critical for helping children to process and retain narratives or other material from storybooks.

Second, for young preschoolers in the prereading phase, story illustrations help to elicit the sorts of story-reading interactions that are known to enhance children’s story processing and relate to positive literacy outcomes.

One necessary extension of this line of work is to examine how digital technology affects shared book reading. Some work suggests that children adopt a more participatory role when read an e-book by a researcher than a traditional storybook (Moody et al., 2010).

Yet other work suggests that touch sensitive e-readers may negatively impact parent-child shared book reading interactions and children’s comprehension (Parish-Morris et al., 2013). With the proliferation of e-readers for people of all ages, it is time to find out whether such media can provide as supportive an environment for adult-child story-sharing interactions as a traditional illustrated storybook.


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